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In March, Kizito (28) left Nairobi, Kenya, for the Dutch city of Delft. These days, the Kenyan lives in Sittard, cycles to his office and has fully embraced Dutch directness. The only thing he doesn’t really want to get used to yet is the ‘Tikkie’ culture (a Dutch app-based payment system in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany). “If someone buys you food in Kenya, you’re just given it. While here, you often ‘go Dutch’ and if someone else pays, you pay them back straightaway via a Tikkie. Well, that is efficient though, ha ha.”

Why we write about this topic:

Sometimes you meet someone you won’t soon forget. Melvin is such a person. He has had setback after setback, but his goal – finding a solution to the huge number of diapers ending up in landfills – remains squarely in place. He has since moved from Kenya to the Netherlands and his company is based at the Brightlands Chemelot Campus.

Kizito emigrated to the Netherlands to turn a business idea into a profitable business. He is working with Alkyl Recycling BV to develop a sustainable and energy-efficient process for recycling absorbent hygiene products, such as diapers and sanitary pads. Last summer, he signed a contract at Brightlands, where he makes use of all the facilities and expertise surrounding chemical processes on the Chemelot Campus.

‘I noticed my niece’s waste diapers piling up’ 

A long road led to Kizito emigrating. In 2019, the seed for that idea was planted. He was babysitting his little niece a lot then, and suddenly saw diapers piling up in the compost pit at home. “Together with two colleagues from the University of Nairobi we decided to create an effective chemical recycling process for waste diapers. Kenya does not have a working waste management system, and diapers are left lying around everywhere there. The problem with diapers is that they decompose very slowly, smell extremely bad and are highly polluting.”

When the three scientists looked into the ways currently used to resolve these problems, they soon saw that few options were available. As soon as you burn diapers, toxic substances are released because the product is made up of chemical components. The men then formulate a chemical process that can reprocess diapers, and they also enroll in a program called ClimateLaunchPad, who are partners of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) in Nairobi. They learn at breakneck speed how to turn their idea into a viable business format.

“The problem with diapers is that they decompose very slowly, smell extremely bad and are highly polluting.”

Melvin Kizito

Number one in Kenya, Africa and the world

Once they pitch their idea during a national competition, they nab the number one spot in the Kenyan competition. They also finish first in both the African and global competitions. With €22,000 in prize money in their pockets, they then decide that it is time to set up an official company.

Kizito: “Until that moment, we were just a couple of guys with a cool idea. That’s when we founded LeafyLife. The idea was simple: we collect diapers, clean them chemically, extract the wood pulp and turn it all into bioethanol, a fuel you can use to cook with. Poorer families often burn coal, wood or even plastic because gas is too expensive. Those fuels cause a huge amount of indoor pollution. We solve two problems this way: we recycle chemical waste and ensure a healthier living environment.”


But, as is common among start-ups, the idea turned out to be fraught with snags. For example, the entrepreneurs discovered that many diapers are not made of wood pulp, or cellulose, but instead of synthetic fibers. And those cannot be converted into bioethanol.

It also turned out that a lot of diapers are needed to produce a small amount of fuel. “Our focus then shifted to chemically recycling diapers in an efficient way; we dropped the whole bioethanol part. We extract diaper materials; plastics, wood pulp and superabsorbent gel. These materials are then used as secondary raw materials to make other products like plastic films, pet litter, viscose and industrial absorbents.”

With the prize money, the men planned to set up a laboratory to further develop and test their process. They knocked on the door of the National Research Institute of Kenya and asked for a lab space. They are notified eight months later that they have not been accepted.  “Our university also lacked the infrastructure and framework for start-ups like ours. When we were looking for a laboratory space, things fell apart as soon as we told them we want to recycle diapers. It’s toxic waste and a chemical process, so a lot of institutions shied away from that.”

An own laboratory

In late 2020, after a nearly year-long search, they found a commercial building that did rise to the challenge. All this took place during COVID-19. “Since we had won the EIT competition, we became part of a global incubation program which included fifteen other leading start-ups from all over the world. We were supposed to attend the bootcamp abroad. But on account of COVID-19, everything moved from real-life to Zoom,” Kizito says.

Despite all this, the entrepreneurs carry out the first chemical tests in their own laboratory in early 2021. The hardest part of the recycling process, however, has to do with the fact that diapers are made up of super absorbent substances. “These are substances that can absorb up to four hundred times their own weight in water. So, you can’t clean these diapers with water.” The scientists are developing a chemical process that effectively dismantles the material’s absorbent function. In addition to feces, molecular contamination also needs to be removed. These are all the remaining substances, such as hormones, enzymes and drug residues.

Kizito: “Diapers are composed of three materials: 26 percent of which is plastic, 50 percent is wood pulp and 15 percent is made up of absorbent molecules. We have developed a way to separate those materials.”

Transition to the Netherlands

The next step is to move their process to a real reactor. To do that, they need the expertise of an engineer and funding. Both of these are difficult to find. “Once again, we ran into the problem that there is a lack of knowledge and facilities in Kenya. We entered two competitions to raise funds. One was the No Waste Challenge in Amsterdam.”

LeafyLife subsequently went on to win and two of the three co-founders accepted the award in Amsterdam and attended the boot camp. On their return to Kenya, Kizito is still left with the feeling that they are not getting enough support. In the Netherlands, he was referred to the start-up visa scheme and decided to apply. “Finally, last December, we were hired at the validation lab of the Yes!Delft incubator. There, we had to prove that our problem is also a problem in Europe and we got to follow a very intensive online program.”

The entrepreneurs proved that diaper waste is also a problem in Europe as much as it is in Kenya. Then comes an important moment. Kizito decides to book a one-way ticket and takes the risk of emigrating to the Netherlands to chase his ambitions without money. “The other founders have decided not to take that step. That was very difficult, because all this time there have been three of us. But I completely understood their choice. I hope they can join me here, in The Netherlands, in the future.” From that moment on, Kizito is on his own. He sets up a new company. After all, LeafyLifes belonged to the three of them.

Alklyl Recycling

Alkyl Recycling represents a new beginning. People he meets during the boot camp in Amsterdam help him arrange financing, and during his first months he lives in a student dorm in Delft, where he quickly makes friends.

Since September, he has had an office on the Brightlands Chemelot Campus and he has access to the laboratories. Within three years, a demo plant should be built that is capable of processing 15,000 kilograms of diapers per day. He also aims to work with waste treatment companies on creating a market for absorbent waste products.

If he has learned one thing over the past four years, it is that you always have to persevere. “When you have an idea, you have to dare to make some rigorous decisions. You are capable of achieving so much more than you think. I want to show that you not only can have an environmental impact, but that behind a circular economy there is also a revenue model. Look, we will always need diapers and other absorbent hygiene products. It’s about finding a way to properly manage the waste stream that they produce.”


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